Grove Music Online presents this multi-part series by Don Harrán, Artur Rubinstein Professor Emeritus of Musicology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, on the life of Jewish musician Salamone Rossi on the anniversary of his birth in 1570. Professor Harrán considers three major questions: Salamone Rossi as a Jew among Jews; Rossi as a Jew among Christians; and the conclusions to be drawn from both. Previous installments include “Salamone Rossi, Jewish musician in Renaissance Mantua” and “Salamone Rossi as a Jew among Jews”.
As a Jewish musician working for the Mantuan court, and competing for the favors that its Christian musicians and composers hoped to gain, it was only inevitable for Rossi to have been considered an intruder. His talents as composer and violinist must have been so remarkable that the dukes decided to keep him in their service over the course of almost forty years, from 1589 to 1628. In his publications he was designated an ebreo, but the very fact that he published so widely suggests that the quality of the music must have been more important than his Judaism.
Still, in Rossi’s dealings with the authorities, his Judaism was a bone of contention. For one thing, because of Jewish holidays and the Sabbath, Rossi was not always available when needed. For another, he could not be expected, when asked to do so, to write music to texts with Christian content. We know from a letter of Claudio Monteverdi that the ducal palace ran concerts of chamber music on Friday evenings, yet Rossi, who observed the Sabbath, would not have been present. We also know that of the various composers who were asked to write music for La Maddalena, a “sacred representation” about the sins and penitence of Mary Magdalen, Rossi was the only one to be assigned, at his request, a secular poem. The piece he wrote for it was “Spazziam pronte”.
Rossi appears to have had cordial relations with Duke Vincenzo I, to whom he dedicated his first two publications. In the first of them, from 1589, he refers to the duke as his “most revered patron” and to himself as the duke’s “most humble and devoted servant”; in the second, from 1600, he supplemented the phrase “most revered patron” with “my natural lord,” to whom he was indebted, he admits, for everything he knows.
Here is one madrigal from his first collection dedicated to Duke Vincenzo: “Cor mio,” originally for five voices, though also prepared as a monody for voice and chitarrone.
Vincenzo was described by his contemporaries as a person “who favored the Jews and spoke kindly to them.” He appears to have encouraged Rossi to compose and perform as a violinist. But with his death in 1612 his successors Francesco and Ferdinando were less sympathetic toward Jews. Before entering office, Francesco was known as a Jew hater—even the pope said so—and as likely to drive the Jews out of Mantua. He was responsible for erecting the Jewish ghetto. It is uncertain what Rossi’s relations were with Francesco or Ferdinando. That Rossi dedicated none of his publications to them speaks for itself.
Jews were not liked and try as he might, Rossi was subject to criticism, if not slander. He asks Duke Vincenzo to keep him “safe from the hands of detractors” by lending his “felicitous name” to his first book of madrigals (1600). “Without your support,” he writes, “his works would be torn to shreds by his critics.” Felicita Gonzaga is asked to “protect and defend” the works in his second book of madrigals (1602), for “no slanderer or detractor would ever dare to censure something that is protected and favored by a lady of such great distinction.”
Rossi was determined to make a name for himself in a non-Jewish environment. His situation appears to have been so hopeless that he grabbed at every opportunity to win a new patron. In choosing his dedicatees, he emphasized some favor he received from them. The extent of these “favors” appears to have been no more than a friendly glance, or a word of praise, or the mere presence of the dedicatee at a performance of his works.
Flattery, praise, gratitude: these were the means by which Rossi hoped to improve his situation. For Rossi, the word patrono, or patron, designated persons who, once having granted him favors, were being asked for new ones. It is difficult to know how much of his dedications were sincere and how much was fabricated. In his Hebrew collection Rossi tells us how he chose Moses Sullam as his patron. “I searched in my heart,” he writes, “for the one ruler to whom I would turn, to place on his altar the offering of this thanksgiving. Then I lifted my eyes and saw that it would be better for me to show my affection to you, honored and important in Israel, than to anyone else.” The tone seems to be genuine. Yet when Rossi dedicates his four-voice madrigals to Prince Alfonso d’Este, he speaks in another language, artificial, rhetorical:
My mind, particularly disposed to serving Your Highness forever, and your infinite kindness and sublimity have given me the courage not only to dedicate to you these few efforts of mine but also to make me hope, at the same time, to be able to see them, by means of your most felicitous name, consecrated to the immortality of your fame, resting assured that you will not disapprove of my receiving this favor of your kindness, which is to reveal to the world, with my meager demonstrations, the most ardent signs of my reverent devotion to Your Highness, whom I, in all humility, beseech, with deepest affection, to accept these trifling notes of mine, assuring that every wearisome undertaking is bound to become the lightest load for me, inasmuch as I am stirred by an immense desire to serve Your Highness.
Rossi did not do the one thing he could have done to solve his problems: convert to Catholicism. The pressure to do so must have been tremendous, but it is doubtful it would have improved his lot. Mahieu le Juif, the thirteenth-century trouvère who composed various songs tells us that the reason that he converted was to please a certain lady, for whose love he “abandoned his religion and his faith in God.” Little did it help him though, for she did not “reciprocate” his “love”; her heart was like “steel”; she “betrayed” him; and she “made a fool” of him. The thirteenth-century minnesinger Süsskind of Trimberg, who too wrote various songs, also converted, but suffered from poverty (“the rich man has flour,” he said, “the poor man has ashes”). In the end, his patrons “separated him from their estate,” whence he “fled the courts,” only perhaps to return to his faith, though now “with a beard,” “gray hair,” after the “life style of an old Jew,” as he is depicted, in fact, in an illustration.
Headline image credit: Opening of Salomone de Rossi’s Madrigaletti, Venice, 1628. Photo of Exhibit at the Diaspora Museum, Tel Aviv. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.